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Highway monuments: The Good, The Bad, and When They Are Getting Ugly

On city boulevards and almost every highway in Canada, there are loads of 2x4 wooden crosses. These monuments are often put up where a death from a car accident occurred. The crosses often have white peeling paint and are adorned with sun bleached synthetic flowers. You might even find unrecognisable laminated photos or hand written letters crudely stapled to the horizontal beam. On the prairies, there are few trees, just open farm land. Although nobody is buried at these locations we daily drive by the sun bleached decay. 

I never used to mind these roadside monuments. I thought of them as a reminder to slow down. They don’t even do that anymore. Driving by them regularly, they eventually become part of the landscape. Lately rather than thinking about who died there, I wonder why nobody has come out to care for the monument and what it would look like if they did. The accident is usually at a place where it is dangerous to stop your car. My dark imagination goes to an older person stopped at the side of the highway with not enough room to properly pull over and getting hit by a semi truck while holding a bouquet of plastic roses. I thankfully have never heard of this happening and it’s probably because nobody ever comes out to maintain these monuments. 

Then I think about the people who own the property. How do they feel about someone putting a monument on their land? Did anyone ask permission? Usually not. Perhaps it is not a big deal on land along the highway owned by the government, but what about the farmers expected to mow around that unkempt monument and have mixed feelings around taking it down. How would most people feel about someone they didn’t know erecting a monument to a stranger on their front lawn, adorning it with plastic and leaving it, never to return. Not everyone likes year round Halloween décor. 

I used to think that especially with untimely deaths, people who couldn’t afford a cemetery just needed a place to go. The problem is that nobody is returning after the first couple of visits. You don’t often see families with their picnic basket luncheoning next to a busy intersection with semis roaring by. 

Most people don’t think of the place their loved one got hit by a vehicle or was in a horrific accident as the place where they currently reside. The memories of these locations, are not the ones we find heartwarming or comforting. They never capture that person’s essence and when the families of these people drive by, I am quite sure they just feel disturbed and sad. The families who are close to the deceased know the location, without having a monument of where it happened. 

Families erect these roadside monuments for the same reason people get a cemetery monument. We worry that the person close to us will be forgotten. Having a place to go is actually therapeutic for families, but we need to ensure the location is safe for the people left to mourn. It is our job as funeral directors to educate people on ways to commemorate a death which will help in the grieving process. A cemetery is a great place to do this, but not a feasible option for many families. 

When someone chooses not to use the cemetery, we need to discuss creating a shrine in their home or backyard which will allow, especially the elderly, an outlet and a safe space to care for and commemorate their dead. I would be saddened to know that a family I served got injured when going to maintain a highway monument. There are enough crosses on the road. 

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